Metagamification in Minecraft

Just trying to describe why over two million viewers think this frivolous-looking video is jaw-dropping will inevitably come out sounding like gobbledygook to all but those who already fully appreciate the sensational breakthrough it represents

You’ll either be utterly awe-struck or mystified as to why anyone would find this anything but pointless, time-wasting nonsense :  here’s why what you’re looking at is more important than it seems:

Science needs simulations to make itself intelligible, but…

We live in a reality whose simplest things conceal an almost limitless underlying complexity of structure and function. The more science we do, the more yet-to-be-understood complexity we uncover.

In order get to grips with this seemingly unending succession of discoveries, scientists need to build bridges between such complexity and the kinds of much more easily understandable things that we deal with in our everyday lives.

Once they start to grapple with such things as the complexities of particular problems in physics, biology, chemistry and engineering, they start building models of the phenomenon (usually made up of equations) and then they put together software simulations of those models (animated visual representations).

Whenever scientists make simulations of these complex phenomena, in most cases the simulation will be no less unintelligible to non-scientists (or even to other scientists not working in the same field) than the equations and computer code that was used to build them.

So simulations, instead of the solution, are part of the problem

Simulations are meant to make things easier to understand or interact with than equations, but both building them and using them introduces whole new levels of complexity.

This opens up the question of whether there are potential new ways of using things like gamification and crowdsourcing to make the entire process of simulation construction more widely accessible, in order to overcome some of its most serious shortcomings.

What if you could make the simulations themselves:

  • less unintelligible to non-scientists?
  • more like real life?

What if you could make the job of making simulations:

  • fun?
  • addictive?

What if you could make the job of discovering how to make simulations:

  • a game in itself?
  • something where you can start off not needing to understand the science, and learn it as you go along?

Notice how the simulation in this video is:

  • a human-scale, navigable world
  • created using deliberately primitive, low-resolution building blocks
  • an actual working simulation
  • an almost unimaginably sophisticated piece of user-generated content
  • a system offering limitless opportunities for enhancement and support, conforming to academically recognised extensibility standards
  • the beginning of an ambitious program of planned further development

Now I’m not claiming that the simulation shown in the video in any way represents, in itself, a solution to the problems of simulation.

For a start, this simulation’s intelligibility to those unfamiliar with either the thing being simulated (an Algorithmic Logic Unit or ALU, something you’ll find in every computer) or with the game platform in which it was developed (Minecraft) is not something that I’m presenting  as a representative example of a step forward in terms of addressing the accessibility issues of those subjects.

To be fair, this was not the goal of the creator of that simulation, who, by the way, deserves (and has received) serious respect for the sheer scope of his magnificent achievement and the extraordinary efforts behind it.

No, what I am saying, is that there were many things about what he did (and the platform that he used to do it) which seem to me to offer a signpost regarding the possibilities for the future of simulation construction that this particular approach opens up.

In case you’re wondering what the person whose work we saw and whose voice we heard in the video looks like:

Here’s an interview with Markus “Notch” Persson, the author of Minecraft:

Here’s a review of Minecraft by someone who, like me, was initially put off by the (deliberately retro-looking) Minecraft graphics:

Here’s the details of the book mentioned in the first video:

Elements of Computing Systems: Building a Modern Computer from First Principles by Noam Nisan and Shimon Schocken

Mention in the video was also made of the Redstone feature which allows you to have wires, circuits and logic in Minecraft